Tag Archives: Bush and religion

Evangelical male order

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

Rev Ted Haggard down on his knees

It’s fascinating to watch yet another Evangelical/Republican homo-sex scandal erupt. After Rep Mark Foley was introduced to the world by a White House page, Rev Ted Haggard hits the media courtesy of a Denver prostitute called Mike Jones. Not only did the (now former) president of the National Association of Evangelicals pay Jones for sex he also bought crystal from him.

As delicious as it is as a scandal, it is also a fascinating media story and an even more fascinating religion story.

As Colorado Springs gay news site Gazette reports, the story has been brewing for some time and is a great example of the new press rules on how and when a scandal becomes public. NBC Denver affiliate KUSA had been investigating Jones’ claims for two months but say they couldn’t find corroborating evidence. But when Jones went on talkback radio and claimed to have been paid for sex by “one of the biggest religious guys in the country” KUSA decided that they could do an accusation/rebutal story if Haggard agreed to speak to them.

“It became public and we decided we would do the story if Pastor Haggard responded to it, and he did. We presented it as such: There’s an allegation, and there’s a response,” KUSA’s assistant news director told Gazette.

Interesting example of how the journalistic rules suddenly change when a media organisation suddenly thinks it might be scooped, on what is obviously going to become a pretty dynamic story. It’s a classic example of “strategic objectivity” being abandoned because it was no longer strategic. It’s also a story about elections. Jones says he wanted it out before next weeks elections because Haggard had been playing such a key role in the Colorado marriage amendment.

The rules of the PR game are also in effect. At first Haggard denied the claims. Then he stood down from his church position while an independent investigation took place. But after that an incremental series of admissions have leaked from the pastor himself, culminating in the strange: I only contacted Jones to buy drugs and a massage not to have sex, yeh I did buy the drugs but I didn’t use them and ah the massage no, there were no happy endings – sorry we are all tempted. Positively Clintonesque: I did not have sexual intercourse with that man nor did I inhale. As Josh Holland on Alternet sarcastically comments:

The sad thing is that Haggard’s followers will probably buy all that. After all, they throw millions of dollars at these “spiritual leaders” who are transparent con-men of the worst sort. They support Republicans who pay them lip service but ignore them until the next election rolls around. ‘It’s all political,’ they’re saying to themselves now — part of the Grand Liberal Conspiracy® to tear down people of faith.

Probably the most interesting reflection on the whole saga comes from Jeff Sharlet who did a long profile on Haggard for Harpers last year. He writes: “The downfall of Ted Haggard is not just another tale of hypocrisy, it’s a parable of the paradoxes at the heart of American fundamentalism.” He also admits to missing that the first time around:

I wrote about the role of sex in Ted’s theology, but removed it from the final edit of the story (some of it I refashioned into a short essay on Christian Right’s men’s sex books for Nerve). I made the mistake of viewing Ted’s sex and his religion of free market economics as separate spheres. The truth, I suspect, is that they’re intimately bound in a worldview of “order,” one to which it turns out even Ted cannot conform.

In the Nerve article Sharlet notes how “the gay man” as archetype fills the role of the “harlot” of old as the new seductress:

It is no longer acceptable to speak of loose women and harlots, since sexual promiscuity in a woman is the fault of the man who has failed to exercise his “headship” over her. It is his effeminacy, not hers, that is to blame. And who lures him into this spiritual castration? The gay man.

Christian conservatives loathe all forms of homo- and bisexuality, of course, but it is the gay man (singular; he’s an archetype) who looms largest in their books and sermons and blogs and cell group meetings. Not, for the most part, as a figure of evil, but one to be almost envied. “The gay man” is the new seductress sent by Satan to tempt the men of Christendom. He takes what he wants and loves whom he will and his life, in the imagination of Christian men’s groups, is an endless succession of orgasms, interrupted only by jocular episodes of male bonhomie. The gay man promises a guilt-free existence, the garden before Eve. He is thought to exist in the purest state of “manhood,” which is boyhood, before there were girls.

And it is this state of unordered – uncoded – manhood that is such a threat, and so seductive. A seduction it appears Haggard could not resist.

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A China moment?

0214_bush_460x276_1Stanley Fish says that it’s time for Bush to go to China.

I don’t mean that literally, but metaphorically. It’s time for George Bush to do what Richard Nixon did – perform an act whose effectiveness is a function of the fact that he is the last man anyone would have expected to do it. What would that act be? It won’t be – and shouldn’t be – agreeing to a face-to-face, one-on-one debate with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, if only because when you accept the other guy’s invitation you cede him the initiative and the position of leadership, and we all know that George Bush will never willingly do that. No, it has to be something that a) makes clear that he is the one in charge, and b) is so surprising and (apparently) out of character that its very announcement alters the geopolitical landscape and disarms criticism in advance.

Fish’s idea is that Bush should announce a personal fact finding mission to the Middle East. An intriguing idea but I am not so sure it’s a China moment or would have the far reaching effects – symbolic or actual – that Fish proposes it might. What’s interesting are the comments at NYT.com. Here’s a typical comment:

Dear Mr. Fish: Indeed, the Grand Tour is an excellent idea (It is also clear you were enjoying yourself, tongue-in-cheek-or-otherwise, while you were composing this piece.) Here’s why it won’t happen: 1) George Bush does not expose himself to criticism; 2) George Bush does not expose himself to possible harm (Vietnam); 3) Mostly, George Bush does not do anything anyone else thought of first, unless that person’s last name is Cheney or Rove. You last name is Fish. Nice try anyway.

Both Fish and the commenter think they know who Bush is and how he thinks. They want him to act outside the square, jump out of his box because they are convinced they know exactly what box he’s in at the moment.

There’s a lot written about and a lot of evidence to support the incurious, man on a mission, black and white Bush – so much so the very idea of a China moment seems pretty preposterous. But more fundamental then any character flaws that we may or may not be able to identify is Bush’s sense of history. Bush and Nixon have very different notions of their own relationship to the world and to history. Nixon for all his flaws fundamentally saw himself as a statesman that’s what made China possible. Nixon prepared his whole life for that China moment, he not only wanted to be president, he wanted to be a historically significant President. He spent the last twenty years of his life ensuring that legacy. Bush is an accidental president. I suspect he would not have run again had he lost in 2000.

Nixon had both a domestic and a foreign policy agenda that had evolved and matured over time. He was an archetypal politician who for all his paranoia and self-aggrandizement knew – from bitter experience – that politics, real politics occurred over time. Bush has not set out to achieve anything because he believes he has been given a mission.

Bush believes – and in some senses he is right – that he has had his China moment. For Bush the transformation came early on: grabbing the megaphone in the rubble of ground zero, addressing the memorial at the National Cathedral and addressing the joint session of Congress in the weeks after 9/1, Bush unexpectedly declared himself to be a real leader – a war president. The puppet from Texas began to take hold of the strings. Sure his speeches were being written for him but what was new was a deeply personal sesne of mission that animated those speeches like never before.

Bob Woodward has been rightly criticised for giving Bush a free ride in Bush at War and Plan of Attack but what emerges clearly is Bush’s own conception of who he was and how he reacted and Bush believes himself to be a man called and transformed.

According to Woodward’s book, in the lead up to the joint session speech Bush had been insistent that it include a strong sense of his personal dedication to this new moment in American history. He hammered Mike Gerson and his coms team for a set of words that matched how he said he felt:

“I will not forget this wound to our country and those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.”

Gerson waited anxiously for a call from his boss following the speech. When the call came, according to Woodward, they both remember what the President said:

“I have never felt more comfortable in my life.”

After he made that declaration, the Presidency of George W. Bush jumped outside its box. Bush grabbed at the power of the “war time president” he quickly declared himself to be. Bush believes quite resolutely he has already been to China. Bush maybe worried about the short term prospects of his party in the mid-terms but I don’t think he worries about his role in history.

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More on Bush and Katrina

With the one year anniversary of Katrina at hand we will be deluged by a Hurricane of commemoration and analysis over the next few weeks. What strikes me so far is the similarity of all the assessments I have read so far.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg in today’s NYT begins with a focus on that same image of Bush that I referred to in yesterday’s post. She makes an even more striking comparison:

When the nation records the legacy of George W. Bush, 43rd president and self-described compassionate conservative, two competing images will help tell the tale.

The first is of Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bullhorn in hand, feet planted firmly in the rubble of the twin towers. The second is of him aboard Air Force One, on his way from Crawford, Tex., to Washington, peering out the window at the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina thousands of feet below.

If the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina called into question the president’s competence, that Air Force One snapshot, coupled with wrenching scenes on the ground of victims who were largely poor and black, called into question something equally important to Mr. Bush: his compassion.

She goes on to quote James Thurber a presidential scholar who notes that this is a critical moment in the Bush presidency and that “it will be in every textbook”.

The gravitas of Bush’s recent radio address shows that he is well aware of the significance of the ongoing Katrina storm. He also knows full well that what is wiping him off the political map now as then are his perceived lack of compassion and competence. In a carefully structured talk Bush first praises the compassionate response of ordinary Americans and puts this firmly in the context of the extraordinary “spirit of America”:

During the storm and in the days that followed, Americans responded with heroism and compassion. Coast Guard and other personnel rescued people stranded in flooded neighborhoods and brought them to high ground. Doctors and nurses stayed behind to care for their patients, and some even went without food so their patients could eat. Many of the first-responders risking their lives to help others were victims themselves — wounded healers, with a sense of duty greater than their own suffering. And across our great land, the armies of compassion rallied to bring food and water and hope to fellow citizens who had lost everything. In these and countless other selfless acts, we saw the spirit of America at its best.

He then goes on to admit not his failing or the failing of his administration but the failings of “federal, state, and local governments”

Unfortunately, Katrina also revealed that federal, state, and local governments were unprepared to respond to such an extraordinary disaster. And the floodwaters exposed a deep-seated poverty that has cut people off from the opportunities of our country. So last year I made a simple pledge: The federal government would learn the lessons of Katrina, we would do what it takes, and we would stay as long as it takes, to help our brothers and sisters build a new Gulf Coast where every citizen feels part of the great promise of America.

His sudden jump to the first person pledge takes him into the rhetorical zone of the previous paragraph with his pledge’s “great promise of America” neatly matching the previous paragraph’s “spirit of America at its best”. He thus tries to rhetorically insulate himself from the institutional failings and link himself with the heroism and courage of ordinary Americans.

However as Michael Gawenda reports in the Sydney Morning Herald for those from the poorest and most devastated areas of New Orleans Bush’s promise counts for little.

In the Lower Ninth Ward, Bush is unlikely to find many people who feel part of this great promise. Indeed, he is unlikely to find too many people at all. Like much of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods, it remains a devastated wasteland in which there is still no electricity and where only a fraction of toxic debris – all that was left of the houses – has been removed.

When the Herald visited the Lower Ninth Ward a few months ago, a three-man emergency agency crew was just beginning the task of removing wrecked cars, at a rate of three or four a day. With up to 100,000 cars needing to be removed, the process could take years.

Like a number of other commentators Gawenda also notes the rise of conspiracy theories:

There are still widespread rumours of a secret plan cooked up by the Administration and the New Orleans City Council not to rebuild the poorer, lower-lying areas of New Orleans which for some people, is the explanation for the fact that so little has been done to rebuild these neighbourhoods.

The film director Spike Lee, in his four-hour film When the Levees Broke, makes the case, admittedly without much evidence, that the Administration is determined to use the Katrina disaster to rid New Orleans of poverty and of its black population. The film has just been shown on US television.

Lee even raises the possibility that the levees were smashed on purpose so the black neighbourhoods would be flooded, a conspiracy theory widely believed in many black communities.

It shows how deep is the distrust of Bush, how widespread the hostility and anger towards him and his Administration among blacks after Katrina.

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Back with Bush in New Orlean’s

I am back after taking six months leave of absence from this project currently focusing on getting together a stronger structure for my thesis.

In the news everything circles around the same issues. With the first anniversary of Katrina and the fifth anniversary of September 11 both approaching there are a growing body of comment pieces which from my perspective seek to make sense of the myth of President Geroge W Bush. In yesterday’s Chicago Tribune Mark Silva catalogues the series of powerful image moments that constructed the overall image of a removed president as Katrina made landfall:

At first he was remote from the disaster, leaving a long summer vacation in Texas for a scheduled speech to senior citizens in Arizona the day Katrina struck. His distance was magnified the next day in San Diego, where he commemorated the 60th anniversary of Victory in Japan Day and hoisted a singer’s guitar for photographers.

The next soon-to-become iconic image of detachment came with a photograph of Bush looking down at New Orleans from Air Force One as he flew east to Washington. It portrayed, not a concerned leader, but one who had not stopped to comfort suffering people.

When Bush finally did arrive on the Gulf Coast on Sept. 2, he uttered the words to the struggling director of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, that have haunted Bush since: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

As most of New Orleans lay under water and thousands piled into the convention center pleading for food and potable water, the nation’s most costly natural disaster had become a full-fledged political disaster.

This image of a detached president, inappropriately upbeat seems to have had a major impact on his standing as a leader. But it also clustered with a range of other misadventures and missteps. Silva continues:

The crisis arrived as growing numbers of Americans were starting to question the conduct of the war in Iraq as well as Bush’s handling of the economy. His approval rating in the Gallup Poll already had slumped to 40 percent days before Katrina, then a low point for Bush and a level of support he still is struggling to maintain.

“The greatest damage that Katrina did to President Bush was in his aura of competence,” said David Lanoue, chairman of the political science department at the University of Alabama. “It shook the confidence of a lot of people in the White House’s ability to respond to either natural or man-made disasters.”

The elephant in the hurricane was of course the issues of race and poverty. Something that overtime even Bush seemed to understand. Two weeks after Katrina he made a significant speech that linked race and poverty and made a commitment to developing minority owned businesses and increasing homeownership. But New Orleans is still waiting.

“He said he was going to talk about race and poverty,” said Brinkley, who teaches American civilization at Tulane. “When did that happen? It’s back to business as usual.”

The federal government has committed $17 billion for community development block grants, offering as much as $150,000 for each homeowner whose home stood outside designated flood zones.

But Mississippi only recently started paying out this money to homeowners, and Louisiana is just now starting.

Experts say little will end up in the hands of low-income homeowners–and none will go to renters, nearly half of the people displaced by Katrina.

“This is a unique opportunity in American life,” said Roland Anglin, director of the Initiative on Regional and Community Transformation at Rutgers University. “When the president came to the Gulf Coast and made those remarks, a lot of us thought that was an opportunity to readdress the issue of race and equity. Unfortunately, that has not progressed as much as many of us hoped it would.”

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Fundamentalist Occultism

From a review of David Kats’ The Occult Tradition from the Renaissance to the Present Day in today’s Australian:

His most provocative claim however, is that “messianic fundamentalist Christianity” belongs firmly within the occult tradition. It is not difficult to see why fundamentalism is significant within the contemporary US political landscape: 91 per cent of Americans believe in God, 71 per cent believe in hell, 34 per cent believe the Bible is inerrant and, Katz estimates, 20 per cent “can be called ‘evangelical Protestants'; that is, fundamentalists”.

Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush all embraced evangelical Christianity, yet its “establishment quality … should not exclude fundamentalism from the history of the occult tradition”.

“Fundamentalists predict the future through deciphering a document whose meaning is hidden, occult rather than manifest,” Katz writes. “[They] believe in the imminent … Second Coming of Christ, according to a plan that they have worked out from encoded references in the Bible, with supernatural implications for everyone living today on earth.”

According to this Armageddon theology, true believers will be spared the tribulations of the impending End Times by being bodily removed from the earth in the “rapture of the church”.

When The Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward asked Bush whether he had discussed his planned invasion of Iraq with his father, he replied: “You know, he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength: there is a higher father that I appeal to.”

In one of the most fascinating passages, Katz turns to Bush’s speech announcing air strikes against Afghanistan a month after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US. This contains clear allusions to the books of Revelation, Isaiah and Job, which enable Bush to communicate with fellow fundamentalists, “winking at them conspiratorially as partners in a type of Christianity that is based on the careful reading of an esoteric text”.

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The corporate-religious-complex

Interesting quote from a Sunfell post on Daily Kos that I picked up via Jesus Politics, a good blog that I just discovered which seems to be collecting lots of stufff about religion and American politics/culture:

Rev. Rod Parsley, a pastor of the World Harvest megachurch in Ohio…declared, “We’re not Democrats. We’re not Republicans. We’re Christocrats!”

“Christocrats”. Straight out of the preacher’s mouth. That might also lead to another term that seems to be percolating under the surface of the metasphere: the idea-meme of the corporate-religious complex- that synergistic, and potentially fatal (to our country) blend of Gilded Age corporate greed and hard right religious fervor. The corporate-religious complex has replaced the military-industrial complex as the driving force behind our government. If we plan to keep our country, this complex must be derailed, the synergy spoiled and the perpetrators sent off chasing their own tails.

Shorting the corporations to ground will take some brave lawmaking, and a lot of time- one giant at a time. They have to return to being responsible citizens. Doing the same to the Christocrats will require a lot of deep study of what makes them tick. Someone mentioned the ‘flock mentality’. That needs to be understood, but the followers are not sheep, or stupid. But they are intellectually lazy, since they accept the pap fed to them by their leaders. We must understand that they have a monstrous persecution complex and a deeply held belief that they/we are living in the “End Times” and that the Bible- particularly “Revalation”, is literally true. We must also understand that their leaders have fed them gigantic lies and are the embodiment of the ‘wolves in sheeps clothing’ warned about in the very Scriptures they believe are literally true.

It’s a tough nut to crack, but it is crackable. They’re human beings, with a huge cross-shaped chip on their shoulder. If that wood could be used for something useful, to build a bridge, perhaps, we could find a way to talk them down from their Apocalyptic treehouse.

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Bush and Star Wars

Word from Cannes is that the final installment in the Star Wars saga: Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith is making the links between the Empire and the Empire.

The last episode rounding out the seminal sci-fi saga Star Wars screened at the Cannes film festival today, capping a six-part series that remains a major part of popular culture – and delivering a galactic jab to US President George W Bush….

Reaction at advance screenings was effusive, with festival-goers, critics and journalists at Cannes applauding at the moment the infamous Darth Vader came into being. But there were also murmurs at the parallels being drawn between Bush’s administration and the birth of the space opera’s evil Empire.

Baddies’ dialogue about bloodshed and despicable acts being needed to bring “peace and stability” to the movie’s universe, mainly through a fabricated war, set the scene. And then came the zinger, with the protagonist, Anakin Skywalker, saying just before becoming Darth Vader: “You are either with me – or you are my enemy.”

To the Cannes audience, often sympathetic to anti-Bush messages in cinema as last year’s triumph here of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 attested, that immediately recalled Bush’s 2001 ultimatum, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”

Myth and passion in the Schiavo case

28456320-terri-schiavo

As many commentators have noted (see the Howard Kurtz round-up) the battle over Terri Schiavo’s life, death and consciousness is the latest episode in the culture wars. An interesting article in USATODAY surveys some of the opinion in European newspapers. The European newspapers point out the startling contrasts in the the US right’s theology of life:

A cartoon in Tuesday’s edition of The Times of London, captioned “Funny Old World,” shows a caricature of President Bush signing a document titled “War on Iraq.” The panel reads: “Bush signs bill to kill thousands.” In the cartoon’s second panel, the Bush character signs a document titled “Schiavo Case.” The caption: “Bush signs bill to keep woman alive. …”

In another Times opinion the linkage is with the death penalty:

“The Terri Schiavo case shows just how emphatically the U.S. and Europe are moving on different paths on the ‘right-to-life’ — or in this case, the right to die,” starts one opinion piece in The Times. Later in the article: “The U.S., so impassioned about the right to life in the case of abortion and euthanasia, appears wedded to the right of the state to execute criminals.”

One of the fascinating things about the political dance around Schiavo’s hospital bed is that it is not just the European’s, with the perspective of distance, who see through the theatricality of Bush’s quick flight back to Washington for a 1.15am signing of the Congressional bill to “save” Schiavo. The Washingon Post reported a CBS survey that found that 82 percent of Americans – including 68 percent of people who identify themselves as evangelical Christians – think Congress’s intervention was wrong. Both ABC and CBS have also released polls which show that the overwhelming majority (74% in the CBS data) see congress’s action as motivated by “political expediency” (Kevin Drum via Kurtz). The Needlenose website has an interesting post on the media’s surprisingly up-front labeling of all this as political theatre.

However, in the same WP piece Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia makes the point that the minority that does back congressional action probably supports it intensely, while the majority that disagrees “won’t remember this woman’s name in a few months.”

I think this is largely true but I suspect that the case will hold some continuing mythic impact just as many people will remember the name Karen Quinlan even if they cannot quite place it.

The mythic import of the case is highlighted for many players and media commentators by the proximity of the Easter weekend, and the metaphor of the “Terri Schiavo passion play” has been used repeatedly. However the play of passions isn’t as simple as it seems American Prospect’s Terence Samuel in one of the best pieces I have seen on the case points out that “a close reading of this case suggests that it is about many things (including politics, religion, modern medicine, aggressive weight loss, fertility treatments, medical malpractice awards, and deep moral and ideological beliefs)”. That is of course why it has been taken up by everyone from media commentators, bloggers, the Pope, Bush, Congress and even a 10 year old boy who was arrested yesterday because he was trying (with his father and sisters) to bring Schiavo some water.

Samuel notes how congress majority leader Tom DeLay constantly used the brain dead woman’s first name “Terri” in his congressional speech and referred with haunting effect to her “parched” mouth and “throbbing” hunger. Another aspect of the rhetorical construction of the weak innocent Terri, that I haven’t seen anyone comment on, is the haunting pictures that have been reused constantly in media reports.

schiavo

In these images Schiavo looks imploringly and lovingly towards the camera or towards her mother but she also has the look of a mystic or mad woman. Her consciousness – which is at the heart of this whole drama – is at once affirmed and elided by these images and Terri Schiavo once again enters the realm of the symbolic, transfixed and transformed by both her condition and her representation. This is all made very explicit by a right to life poster which merges the image of Schiavo and Christ, both lost in their own passions.

Bush on good and evil

Howard Kurtz has an interview with Bush’s former press secretary, Ari Fleischer about his memoir Taking the Heat. Mostly a critique of the “liberal media” but one interesting insider insight on Bush:

“Taking Heat” makes clear that Fleischer is a true believer who got a thrill from such things as playing catch with the president on the South Lawn. The book does contain one hint of disagreement with the boss, though, when Fleischer, two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, told the president during a limo ride that the issue of terrorism “was more complicated than ‘good versus evil.’ ”

“If this isn’t good versus evil, what is?” Bush replied, adding that Ronald Reagan didn’t go to Berlin and tell Mikhail Gorbachev to take a few bricks out of that wall.

“The president has a morally declarative speaking style that makes millions of people nervous,” Fleischer says. “It also makes millions of people inspired.”

Although this is clearly reflective of the Bush approach, another comment in the interview also rings very true and shows this dichotomising approach is reinforced by the theatrical adversariality of contemporary press/politics relations:

Pressed about his penchant for robotic spin, Fleischer says both he and White House reporters have become performers since the White House began allowing the daily sessions to be televised: “The modern-day briefing room has lost a lot of its value. The press is playing its aggressive role and the press secretary is playing a defensive role. The press focuses on, ‘Isn’t everything wrong?’ and the press secretary, myself included, focuses on, ‘Isn’t everything good?’ “

Catholics vote Bush

Interesting new poll data from a Pew survey about religious affiliation and voting patterns:

Among
non-Hispanic Catholics, Kerry won the support of 69 percent with those
with liberal or "modernist" beliefs, while 72 percent of
"traditionalists" favored Bush. But importantly, 55 percent of the key
swing group of "centrists" picked Bush over Kerry, who was criticized
by bishops for his support of abortion rights.

The upshot: A one-time Democratic mainstay, Catholics gave Bush an overall edge of 53 percent to Kerry’s 47 percent.

Overall, the mainline Protestant vote split evenly, the poll found,
with a Bush decline of 10 percent from 2000 and the best showing for a
Democrat since the 1960s; results before then are unclear.

Divisions between religious liberals and conservatives were even more stark than they were four years ago.

"The American religious landscape was strongly polarized in the 2004
presidential vote and more so than in 2000," concluded the team of four
political scientists, led by Akron’s John C. Green.

 

The scholars said Bush’s religious constituency included Christian
traditionalists in all categories, Mormons, Hispanic Protestants and
religious centrists among Catholics and mainline Protestants.
 

This last point is the interesting one. "Traditionalists" may now form
a broad category that stretches across specific faiths and links
theological traditionalism witgh political conservatism

Myth and structures of feeling

Over at the ever interesting Revealer, Gregory Grieve expands on an earlier post about "moral values" as a Barthian myth.

The
category of “moral values” was rhetorically powerful because it
operated as an empty signifier, similar to Barthes’ notion of "myth,"
onto which people are projecting their conceptions. As Barthes writes
in "Myth Today":
"The signifier presents itself in an ambiguous way: It is at the same
time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other."

What is it that gives this empty form authority? “Moral values” are
empowered by "scripturalism," a pattern of mediation that represents
texts as ahistorical and uses them to legitimize a specific regime of
practices and beliefs. Scripturalism rests upon a transcendental
understanding of religious texts. Scripturalism differentiates itself
from other forms of understanding those religious texts by accusing
them of idolatry—the worship of material human constructions.

He goes on to define scriptualism in relation to his own area of specialty, South East Asian religious movements,  and notes that it is "an
idolized notion of scripture that by denying the materiality and
history of the text, authorizes a vision of Christianity that is far
from moral".

Far from being a neutral taxonomy,
scripturalism tends to structure knowledge so as to benefit a elite,
educated, conservative worldview. It tends to privilege the linguistic,
the discursive, and the cognitized over the visceral and tacit. For
instance, in South Asian religions, scripturalism has forced local
traditions into a "world religion’s" echo of Christian theology. While
in the 19th century the scripturalism may have been solely a Western
concern, by the 20th century scripturalism had become one of the most
powerful rhetorical tropes of Hindutva fundamentalist political groups
such as India’s religious nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

In another Revealer post Omri Elisha proposes a different yet complimentary way  of understanding the rhetorical force of evangelical Christianity. If Grieves is interested in the broad discursive level Elisha focuses on the intimate language of believers:

I’m
not an evangelical, but I study them as an ethnographer. I listen to
the desires, fears, and ambitions of white, conservative evangelicals
in the so-called red state of Tennessee. I’ve come to know the
evangelicals who are the focus of my research very well, and I’ve
learned to anticipate their sentiments the way that one anticipates the
reactions of a close friend. If nothing else, I can speculate on a
particular structure of feeling that made many American evangelicals
rally their support and their blessings behind the President because,
rather than despite, the fact that his life before September 11, 2001,
seemed to contain so little that would have prepared him for what was
to come.

In a beautifully written piece Elisha argues that evangelicals see Bush not as a Messianic harbinger of Armageddon but as a reluctant Queen Esther, "called for a time such as this" as Laura Bush has described her husband in a widely circulated letter to evangelicals and as Esther is described in the Old Testament. Just as Michael Moore has done in a different context, Elisha tries to envision what Bush might
have been thinking while he sat in the classroom looking bewildered for seven minutes after learning that a second plane struck the Twin
Towers:

What remains significant is how conservative evangelicals read that
moment, and every presidential moment since then. If we come at this
from a perspective that they might take, it follows that evangelicals
did not see a bewildered politician, a man in over his head, stymied by
his own inexperience and geo-political entanglements. Rather they saw
the reluctant Queen Esther struggling to come to terms with the abrupt
realization that she is implicated in a drama much larger than herself.

At that moment, Bush, like Esther, represented the evangelical’s
greatest ambition and anxiety — that one day he/she will be called
upon to surrender him/herself to an irreversible state of being where
personal faith and historical destiny become one and the same. The
higher the stakes, the tougher the personal challenge. Consequently,
the firmer the resolve to follow through — regardless of obstacles or
substantive realities — the greater the faithfulness.

Elisha links this specific Biblical reading into the broader ways in which the American media dramatize and personalise public life

On September 11 we all watched the towers fall, and those who see the
world through particular kinds of dramaturgical lenses — biblical,
cosmic, or nationalistic — also saw what they believe to be the birth
of an unwitting commander. This may be why so many Bush supporters seem
to care less about his past indiscretions: his substance abuse,
questionable service record, and spotty corporate career, for example.
All of that happened before. I don’t just mean before he was “born
again” — this is about a lot more than washing sins away. I mean
before the whisper in his ear that told him “America is under attack,”
and before everyone else saw it happen.

Three years later, people who support Bush are still waiting to see how
the drama will play itself out. Even those disappointed with his
presidency want to know what happens next, how the story will be
resolved. As for evangelicals, they are clearly deeply invested in the
Bush drama for a host of theological and political reasons. But Bush’s
appeal to evangelicals is tied to a particular structure of feeling,
one that expresses itself through scriptural allegories that evoke
notions of obedience, sacrifice, and piety, and affections of
sentimental affinity, barely distinguishable from that which makes
evangelicals feel spiritually connected to that ancient Persian queen,
the one who knew when “such a time” had come.

It is this set of "sentimental affinities" this "structure of feeling," which evolves through public media portrayals, interpretive communities, sub-cultural practices, conversations and private sense making processes, that makes the broader "scripturalist" discourse resonate so powerfully.

A new evangelical politics

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank sees the emergence of a new kind of evangelical politics in the recent US election. She argues that while organisations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition may have previously mobilised voters for Reagan, this time it was grass roots Christian activism that got the turnout for Bush. She writes:

In the past, evangelicals participated in politics reluctantly, at the urging of such figures as Jerry Falwell and, later, Pat Robertson. This time, more than 26 million of them turned out — 23 percent of the electorate — in local church-based networks coordinated closely with the Bush campaign.

"You see the maturation of a movement that began in the late ’70s with the Moral Majority," said Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "Now these people don’t need to be told. They have their own opinions about the state of the culture, and they’ve gotten organized. It has more power because it’s decentralized and organized."

 

Milbank quotes Barry W. Lynn, from the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State speculating that the Left Behind novel’s have played a part in this:

Lynn said that a number of evangelicals, inspired in part by minister Tim LaHaye’s "Left Behind" novels, have come to view politics as part of their religion. "There is a strain of evangelical Christians who believe it is political figures who usher in the Second Coming," he said. As such, Bush "is the spiritual and political leader of a moral revolution."

This certainly fits with my reading of Rapture Culture, Amy Johnson Frykholm’s fascinating reader reception study of Left Behind culture. One of the striking things is the way readers move between engagement with the Left Behind series and other elements of popular culture. This has the effect of creating a kind of seamless imaginary world in which the imaginative possibilities of the Left Behind series become a very real part of daily life and thus daily political choices. I think the Left Behind series is performing an important bridging function that hasn’t been fully explored yet.

In a not very good review of Rapture Culture (when will mainstream reviewers get over the quick easy jabs at post modernism) Stephen Prothero (chairman of the Department of Religion at Boston University who should know better) does make a perceptive point. He argues that the Left Behind series and other evangelical mass cultural products are about maintainance not conversion:

Decades ago the sociologist Peter Berger contended that worldviews
perpetuated themselves (and the societies in which they were embedded)
through "plausibility structures" that sustained in the minds of
believers the reality of those perspectives. Churches and religious
institutions do much of this work, but so does the Left Behind
publishing firm, Tyndale House, the evangelical girls’ magazine Brio
and Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures. Although evangelicals often
raise funds for their forays into mass media by promising to make
converts, the real purpose of those raids may simply be to hold on to
believers already made through procreation or proselytizing. Even
religious traditions that prize sudden transformations in tent meetings
must labor to keep the hearts and minds of the Christians they have
birthed and baptized. And evangelical media, whatever we may think of
their politics, or the virtues of alchemizing atheists into Christians,
play an important part in doing just that.

It seems that these books and other forms of evangelical culture, not just firey Sunday sermons, are in fact "alchemizing" christians into activists. Milbank quotes some striking rhetorical examples:

Though such views are a minority, there were glimpses of that passion on the campaign trail. Last month, at an invitation-only meeting with Vice President Cheney, a questioner rose and said: "I personally think, next to Jesus Christ, [Bush] probably took the greatest load upon his shoulders of any individual, so it had to be with strong backing that he has been able to stand for his testimony for the Lord Jesus Christ."

At another invitation-only event, a questioner asking about Bush’s "faith-based initiatives" told the president: "I believe that the enemy that we need the greatest freedom from right now happens to be Satan, and it’s the enemy that we also don’t necessarily always see. There’s so many people who are being attacked on every level."

Leaders of Christian political organizations have spoken of Tuesday’s results as providential. "Only the Lord could have orchestrated an election in which the president got a wonderful majority vote and at the same time we had a basic Christian institution of marriage on the ballot," Tom Minnery, Focus on the Family’s vice president of public policy, said on the group’s radio show this week.

The organization’s head, James Dobson, said, "I think God has honored" Bush because "the president did acknowledge Jesus Christ." The same program broadcast a statement by Dennis Prager, a Christian commentator, saying "civilization as we understand it was in the balance" in the election, and "a beautiful man has been vindicated."

 

One of the interesting things about these examples is the confluence between the leadership and the grass roots. It looks like they have fully bought into the divinely mandated version of the Bush mission.

This is a fascinating example of the real-time effect of the apocalyptic myth not just transforming the daily lives of believers but also effectively reshaping the national political agenda.